The Colfax Theater
South Bend’s Colfax Theater opened on August 4, 1928 as the first theater in the world to include musical accompaniment and recorded sound. Its facade, designed by Chicago’s George W. Leslie Rapp, was laden with glazed terra cotta, a palladian window, an understated marquee, and a towering, vertical electric sign reading: “Colfax.”
For decades the 2100-seat theater was a cultural hive for the city, originally serving as a vaudeville house, and later hosting the likes of Bob Hope, Ronald Reagan, Rudy Vallee, and Mickey Rooney at its world premiere of Warner Bros.’ film Knute Rockne – All American.
Not unlike many establishments of the day, black residents’ freedom to engage in the Colfax’s cultural life was limited. In Gabrielle Robinson’s book Better Homes of South Bend Dr. B.W. Streets, an African American dentist, describes what it was like to see a movie at the theater in 1930:
The Colfax Theater did not allow blacks to sit down in the lower seats of the theater. Blacks had to buy their tickets and go out the door around to the back and up to the buzzard’s roost. The Buzzard’s roost was so high, and it was so small, it was hardly worth a person’s time.
South Bend sits at a perpetual crossroads—will the shaping of our city’s culture be reserved to a select few, while the rest find it “hardly worth a person’s time”? Or will our culture be a mirror—reflecting the capacious range of talent, experience, and heritage inhabiting our neighborhoods?
While disparate factions either celebrate South Bend’s illustrious history or seek to create a future devoid of that history, we have a responsibility to tell stories that honor the past, uphold the dignity of our city’s people, and profess an aspirational vision for the future.
Today, we deliver our portrait of The Colfax Theater in expectation of that future.